So, this may come as a big surprise to everyone, but I’m a writer. Writing is, I consider, one of the most sacred parts of my identity. I worship the art of it, and love few things more than a good day writing, when my fingertips fly across the keyboard and there seems to be no finite separation between heaven and the filling page.
And despite all of that, if you actually watched me sit down for a writing session, you’d wonder if I really felt that way. I check my phone several times per 20 minutes; and if there’s nothing good on the home screen notification-wise, sometimes I’ll open up Instagram, which I had strategically (I thought) turned off the notifications for. It takes me a while to get back to the page until I remember, “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be writing right now,” then I flip my phone face down and slide it across the table, as if the extra arm stretch will dissuade me.
Yes, DESPITE my holy allegiance to the art of writing, and the belief that it’s not only my career, but my one passion, during writing I’ll check my email – it’s a big feat if I close my email tab when I’m working! I’ll go off on another tangent, remember I owe someone a reply, make another coffee run (a latte this time, it’s lucky), apply some bright pink lipstick, strum “Sunrise” by Nora Jones on my guitar, perform a goat sacrificing ritual… the whole nine yards. I’ll endlessly distract myself from writing, and I. Don’t. Know. Why. (Another great Nora Jones song, may I add).
But it isn’t so much the not knowing why that irritates me; it’s the fact that I do it, even though I’ve owned it as a problem and mentally committed to changing it.
So, when I heard there was a new book called Indistractable (by esteemed author and thought leader Nir Eyal), I had a feeling it held the key to abandoning my impulses. I’ll be honest: I’m usually wary of literature that says it can “help you focus,” because it often recommends status quo solutions like meditation and mindfulness (which might as well be the most challenging feat for a high intensity, highly distractible person like me). But Eyal states upfront: this isn’t a book about meditation and mindfulness, so he won’t even recommend it. Brownie points.
The book helped me understand the root cause of my desires to distract myself and institute a four-step-program to abandon them. It also made me feel like I’m not alone in this distraction-addiction thing. And, I won’t be alone in my new page of living indistractably, thanks to this book and how it’s impacting readers at large already.
Here are a few of my key takeaways.
1. What’s to blame is NOT actually what you think is to blame.
Ah, with all things in life, what we try to point our fingers at are seldom the cause of the actual problem. This is the case with distractions. When I feel an impulse to check my phone, I used to believe it’s because I “intuitively knew” that I had just received an important text and needed to check it ASAP.
It was that type of distraction – from my gut, a pang of light anxiety, that compels me to press that dreaded home button on my iPhone, and see what I’ve missed. So what’s to blame here isn’t the fact that I do get texts while I’m in my writing space, or that it’s inevitable that I’ll miss notifications in this fast-paced world. The real impulse comes from me.
Whereas most people may see distraction as an unavoidable part of the day-to-day, Eyal presents the theory that it’s something deeper. So, even if we chucked our phones out the window and watched them plummet to a cruel death on the sidewalk, we’d still probably be distracted by something else when we returned to work – because what we believed to be the distraction isn’t the actual distraction.
2. The brain distracts itself to deal with pain and discomfort.
Perhaps the most intriguing story in the book is about a Yale professor who admitted in a TEDx talk that she became addicted to her pedometer. Upon closer reflection, this addiction was actually a way to cope with the pain from her divorce.
There’s usually some type of pain or discomfort brewing beneath the surface that needs distraction to feel better. But it doesn’t have to be as life-changing or heartbreaking as divorce. It could be boredom – humans are hardwired to avoid boredom at all costs. A common boredom trap is what Eyal calls “liminal moments” – such as the beat between the end of a phone call and when you pick up work again, or your time at a traffic light. He posits that a great way to defeat the habit of killing boredom with a distraction in these moments is to give himself a ten-minute window: “Okay, fine, I’ll give into this desire, but I have to wait 10 minutes first.” I tried this out myself, and found that forcing myself to sit with the discomfort of something like momentary writers block actually allowed it to pass.
I also found that identifying the pain or discomfort was necessary for my growth as a person. It was no coincidence that the writing sessions I was the most distracted during were the writing sessions focused on an article or a part of my book that elicited a sense of, “Ahh, am I writing this well enough?” For me, the discomfort actually stemmed from feelings of unworthiness. It was much easier to check my Twitter feed than to sit with the uncomfy feelings of “writing inadequacy.”
3. A great way to change how you handle distractions is to harness the power of ‘identity pacts.’
Of course, deciding to change a habit that has been more central to your identity than your hometown can be far more challenging than just identifying pain points and “trying” to change it. So, one of my favorite pieces of advice from the book was to create an identity pact with yourself – a total 180 degree shift in who you are, but based on who you want to become.
When you think about the “Ideal [Insert Your Name Here]” – what are you doing? What have you achieved? What are your pastimes? What are you striving for? Eyal shares that our views of ourselves create a profound impact on our behaviors. So, the Haley I was when I started reading the book was the Haley who deeply identified with being quite distractable. But, the Haley I was when I finished the book was more empowered, and on track to live a life free of distraction, in complete and total focus.
This can be done by changing something as subtle as language. For example: previously (i.e. around Chapter 1 of the book), I may have said, “I can’t check my phone while I’m writing.” But, an identity pact would transform this statement. Now: “I don’t check my phone while I’m writing.” It’s who I am. I am indistractable.
There is so much goodness that awaits you on the pages of this must-read book, because our focus really determines our lives. Imagine the ability to steer our focus in alignment with who we want to be: not just in a professional sense, but in every sense of the world. How will it help us better prioritize relationships, become more aligned with our faiths, and perhaps even enjoy the most intense of workouts? Focus is the axis on which the quality of our lives rests.
And, ‘indistractable’ as a word looks quite similar to ‘indestructible,’ as my spell check has continued to remind me over the course of writing this article. And considering I didn’t feel an impulse to check my phone even once, I’d have to say the words are quite synonymous.
A big thanks to Nir Eyal for that.